Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Would Be A Good Time Not To Freak Out

So Scott Brown won the race to replace Ted Kennedy as a senator from Massachusetts. It's a bit odd for me to write that sentence, because I have a cousin named Scott Brown, and he isn't in politics, and lives about as far away from Massachusetts as you can in this country (he lives out here in Southern California). He does have a tough job; he does PR for Chrysler.

I have to admit that I didn't see this one coming, but in this respect, I think I am in good company, that company being pretty much every other Democrat in the country. I wasn't following this race until very recently; again, like all my fellow Dems, I suspect. Also like my fellow Dems, I am going to be looking for an explanation, although I am going to try to avoid any kind of intra-party blaming. I am not going to take sides in a moderate-vs.-progressive flame war.

My take on it is that Democrats took the voters of Massachusetts for granted, and if there is one thing that can be said to be an iron law about politics in a democracy, it is that voters hate being taken for granted. It is said that you should not speak ill of the dead, and, of course, a death is a time to remember mostly good things about a person. But I think Democrats, in all their praise of Kennedy, forgot that he was, besides being a great senator, an alcoholic womanizer who got his Senate seat because of his family. My gut tells me that many people voted for a Republican because they really were desperate for a change. I can understand that. I have had many experiences with feeling suffocated by an overwhelming sense of liberal superiority. I went to an elite East Coast liberal arts college in the 80's - I get why lots of people find liberals often insufferably arrogant.

I've also heard that Martha Coakley ran a terrible campaign and Scott Brown ran a brilliant one. I didn't follow it, but I'm going to accept that as fact. I don't know the minutiae, and I'm not that interested.

What I am interested in is the future, and I think that still looks good for Democrats. They still have a brilliant and charismatic leader; they still have large majorities in both the House and Senate. What they don't have - yet - is a strong record of accomplishment.

Obama has been compared on many occasions to Reagan, and it's instructive to remember how bad Reagan had it in the early 1980's. Inflation, unemployment, and interest rates were all very high. The recession was horrible. There were serious doubts about the future of this country. Reagan, to his credit, beat inflation, high interest rates, and unemployment. He was also, of course, responsible for a horrible deficit and many other ills. I don't know how much credit goes to Reagan for all of that, and how much goes to people like Paul Volcker, who was chairman of the Fed at the time.

I find the comparison with Reagan apt for another reason: Democrats didn't realize it at the time, but they were losing their ideological legitimacy. America was still in the throes of the post-60's era. Liberals were winning most cultural debates - feminism, civil rights, challenging authority, etc. - but they were losing the battle over the role of government in society. Reagan touched a nerve when he told people that government had gotten too big. It took Democrats several lost elections to realize that. I think they went too far in accommodating conservatives in this regard, but they needed to make a correction.

Today, Obama faces the same challenge: conservatism as an ideology has run out of steam, intellectually, politically, and morally. Obama's problem is that he doesn't have a cadre of people articulating the replacement. That will be the subject of my next post.

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